Dionne Warwick: "In the '60s we all supported each other"

Grammy-winning soul legend Dionne Warwick, aged 71, on her dancing dreams, 1960s segregation, and 'quitting every day'


I had big plans when I was 16. I was going to be a prima ballerina, a concert pianist, a teacher... I still think any of those things could have given me as much pleasure as singing – but when I tore the ligaments on my foot and couldn’t stand on my toes any more, I knew I couldn’t be a ballerina, so I changed my focus from my toes to my throat. I was born singing, I come from a singing family, so maybe it was pre-destined. But it wasn’t till I had a hit record, when I was 19, that I decided singing was definitely the way I was going to go.

I’d instantly like the teenage Dionne. I can say that without any reservations whatsoever. I’ve never had a problem liking who I was. I think that attributes to the amount of friendships I made with people who are still my friends today. I also had a very strong family around me, and family is the anchor of anybody’s being. One of the biggest things the young Dionne will have to learn is the art of making decisions and, for that, she’ll have to draw from the environment she’s been brought up in. Fortunately for me, I was brought up in an environment of love, support and promise.

There isn’t much I could tell my younger self about the industry that would help her. Back then, there wasn’t really a pattern – you either had it or you didn’t. In the ’60s, when I started, it wasn’t the massive competition it is today. We were all comrades, we all cared about each other and supported each other. And still, when I have an opportunity to go and see Gladys Knight or Smokey Robinson or Patti LaBelle – who all happen to be my friends – I take the time to do that.

If I told the young Dionne what was going to happen in her future she’d say, ‘You’re kidding me!’ All the awards, performing before kings and queens, performing with some of the major icons of our industry... At the time, I was so busy touring, I didn’t really have time to think about how overwhelming those things were, so I was able to handle them. That said, I quit every day. You get a point when you’re just so tired. But you know there’s a room full of people waiting for you, so you have to pull yourself together and get on out there.

I still remember the first time I heard my voice coming out of the radio. I thought, ‘Woah, wait a minute, is that really me?’ And I still remember the first Grammy and the first platinum record. I experienced some instances of segregation, which was really rampant here in the States in the ’60s, but because I was alongside my peers and those I revered as music icons at the time, it was just part of what I had to go through. I remember hearing about the death of Martin Luther King. I was on a plane heading towards a concert and when I got there I was told that he’d been shot. I felt awful, absolutely terrible.

Sometimes this life can be hard because there is no privacy at all. I accept the appreciation for what I do, but I’m at the disposal of the general public. I do, however, draw the line when I’m with my children or grandchildren. If we’re out having dinner I expect to be able to eat in peace. I feel I’m as human as the next person.

When I was 16 I always wanted to be 40. There was something very magical about that number for me, I couldn’t wait to be 40. And now that I’m 71 I feel the same way. And I’m not looking forward to 105. But that’s the way God planned it, that’s the way you have to look at it.

In 1956, the year that Dionne Turned 16...
Elvis Presley has his first US number-one hit with Heartbreak Hotel... Morocco declares independence from France... Marilyn Monroe marries playwright Arthur Miller... Britain and France launch attacks in Egypt as the Suez Crisis deepens…

Dionne Warwick will be performing across the UK during May and June, and at the Royal Albert Hall on May 28 in support of World Hunger Day. For more information visit www.worldhungerday.org

Help us to help our vendors. By subscribing to the Big Issue you get more great articles like this one every week and provide us with the additional revenue to build our street-based support for our vendors. Subscribe here